Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young?
It’s an unfortunate but understandable phenomenon that it’s not until an artist dies that his or her work is properly evaluated and appreciated. I saw that process play out on Sirius/XM over the past week following the death of David Bowie. The homage wasn’t unexpected given the satellite service’s music-geek approach to programming, but the breadth of the airplay was amazing to behold. In addition to a special in memoriam channel devoted exclusively to Bowie music, his songs blanketed the classic rock, underground garage, ’80s alternative and new indie music lineups. Even the Bruce Springsteen channel, wholly dedicated to the Boss’ catalog, featured Bowie tracks. From this outpouring I was treated to an alternate take of “Heroes” sung in German, (“Ichhhh… ich bin kö-nig!”), an acoustic version of “Never Let Me Down” by Britt Daniel and a gloomy “Lazarus” from Bowie’s just-released final album. All of it was a testament to his ability to connect with listeners across genres and generations.
David Bowie probably would have been disappointed to know that the first album of his I bought was “Let’s Dance.” I was a teenager, and I liked anything with a good beat and catchy melody (plus he sort of looked like me, which most rock stars didn’t). “Let’s Dance” delivered. It was Bowie’s most commercially successful album, but it led him into what he later described as a creative slump during which he found himself laboring to please his new audience. That vapid teenagers like me were part of that audience must have displeased him to no end.
Thankfully for Bowie, he shook himself free of the pop star machinery and back into new creative directions. While I wasn’t accustomed to being challenged with such impulses, I slowly came around to understand the long, veering arc — in which “Let’s Dance” was a minor blip — that traced Bowie’s career. His stuff from the early ’70s, inadequately described by many as his “glam” period, is as fresh, charged and groundbreaking as anything to come out of the post-Beatles era. Shortly thereafter, he offered his most accessible hooks — for the adult me at least — with gems such as “Golden Years” and “Young Americans.” His more experimental adventures of the 1990s and 2000s, on the other hand, tended to lose me.
But that’s OK. He wasn’t charting his career for me, or the charts. He left such glories to true pop stars such as Dave Clark, Huey Lewis and Lenny Kravitz, whose formula rock hooks appealed to the teenage me and still occupy a warm place in my heart. That said, it’s unlikely they will be remembered with the universal acknowledgment and acclaim I witnessed on the airwaves last week.